UM-Dearborn scholar’s work honored by state historical society
November 10, 2006
DEARBORN / Nov. 10, 2006---The legal history of Michigan tells the story of the state’s development from a territorial outpost, through its economic development to global powerhouse in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its role as a center of organized labor and the progressive movements that grew out of it.
That history has been told in a collection of essays edited by Martin Hershock, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Paul Finkelman, professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School.
Their book, The History of Michigan Law, was published earlier this year by the Ohio University Press. In September, the book received the State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan, the highest recognition presented by the state’s official historical society and oldest cultural organization.
Essays in the book range from “The Northwest Ordinance and Michigan’s Territorial Heritage” to “The Michigan Women’s Commission and the Struggle Against Sex Discrimination in the 1970s.” Other chapters cover the history of labor law in Michigan, conservation and environmental law, and Michigan’s role in the struggle against slavery.
Hershock contributed an article titled “Blood on the Tracks: Law, Railroad Accidents, the Economy and the Michigan Frontier.”
“The railroads and the state of Michigan grew up together,” he wrote. “One of the very first actions of the fledgling state legislature was to enact an overly optimistic public works bill that included plans for the construction of three parallel railroad lines.”
Although those plans were not realized, the expansion of railroad lines across the state led to conflict with farmers whose livestock was injured by trains, and others who saw the railroad as disrupting their communities and way of life.
In Jackson County, “farmers took matters into their own hands in the summer of 1849, placing obstructions on the rails, derailing engines, greasing or tearing up the tracks, burning woodpiles and even stoning and shooting at passing trains,” Hershock wrote.
Such conflicts played a major role in the state’s political, commercial and legal environments in the mid-19th century, and eventually led both to regulations on railroads and to limits on how farmers could allow their stock to graze.
“The encroachment of market capitalism would continue unabated,” Hershock wrote. “No longer could they [farmers] reflexively look upon open land that they did not own as a resource available for communal use. A symbolic shift had occurred in Michigan law, and the culture of capitalism had gained the upper hand.”
Hershock also is the author of The Paradox of Progress: Economic Change, Individual Enterprise and Political Culture in Michigan, 1837-1878, published in 2003 also by the Ohio University Press. That book also was honored with the State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan.